She may be Vietnam’s entrant in this year’s Miss Universe pageant, but 25-year-old Truong Thi May says her ancestry is as Khmer as any Cambodian west of the border.
Miss Vietnam 2013 was born in Phnom Penh and grew up in the region of Vietnam known to most Cambodians as Kampuchea Krom, or Lower Cambodia.
“My parents and grandparents are Kampuchea Krom. My mother came to Cambodia to start a business and I was born in Phnom Penh in 1988,” Ms. May said speaking in Khmer via Skype from Moscow—where this year’s pageant is taking place.
“My mother told me that when I was about a year old, she moved us back to Vietnam,” she said.
The three-week-long Miss Universe pageant, which opened October 20, culminates in the crowning of a new Miss Universe in Moscow on Saturday night.
The pageant does not feature an official Miss Cambodia contestant.
Ms. May, whose Khmer name at her family home in Vietnam’s Mekong delta region is Reaksmey, said that in the absence of an official Miss Cambodia, she hoped to represent both cultures present in her upbringing.
“The Miss Universe competition is the biggest competition so I want…especially to introduce the world to Vietnamese and Cambodians and the traditions of these two countries,” Ms. May said.
“I want to show everyone and everywhere that Khmer children are gentle and kind.”
Ms. May said her mother had taken care in raising her to make sure she did not forget her Cambodian ancestry, and had made sure the language of the family home was Khmer.
But the celebration of Miss Vietnam’s cultural background during the Miss Universe pageant will not include her wearing traditional Khmer clothing.
“I wish I could, but I can’t. The competition just allows [the presentation of] an evening gown, a swimming suit and a Vietnamese traditional dress,” she said, explaining the pageant’s format.
“I think that I have had good fortune and I feel so proud of being a Vietnamese-Khmer girl,” she said, adding that she does not understand the animosity that some Khmers inside Cambodia hold toward the Vietnamese.
“From my point of view, being a human being in 2013 means that we all have good luck and fortune so we need to embrace each other with love and warmth,” she said.
“Just give love, it’s better than hating,” she added by way of advice.
“Just be positive in everyone’s eyes.”
Ms. May—who was recently named one of 2013’s “Top 3 Sexiest Vegetarian Asian Women” by rights group PETA Asia-Pacific—previously placed second in the 2007 Miss Ethnicity Vietnam pageant, a competition open to women of each of the 54 recognized ethnicities of Vietnam.
Asked if she would use her newfound prominence on the Miss Universe stage to give a voice to the Khmer minority in Vietnam, Ms. May said that the Communist Party in Vietnam was already doing a suitable job.
Also, accusations that Vietnam persecutes its Khmer Krom minority are not reflective of her own experience growing up there, according to Ms. May.
“Of course, most are poor. My family is very poor too,” she explained. “But the Vietnamese government has helped the poor a lot—it’s not true that the Vietnamese government doesn’t help us.”
In polling for the People’s Choice portion of the Miss Universe competition, run by the Manila-based Missosology beauty pageant analysis website, Miss Vietnam was last night running in fourth place with 19,500 votes.
But even if she does not win the Miss Universe crown on Saturday night, Ms. May hopes in the future she can help promote Cambodian and Vietnamese values as well as a mutual understanding between the cultures.
“I will disseminate good culture and try my best to make all give more love to each other,” she said.
“I hope I can encourage others to love and help each other and especially to help poor people.”
In 2006, Prime Minister Hun Sen handed down an edict saying that there would be no Miss Cambodia until less than 15 percent of Cambodians live below the poverty line and average yearly income hits $1,500.
Cambodia’s present mean income is about $750.